By STEVE SZKOTAK
CHATHAM, Va. - The rolling fields of Coles Hill were once full of tobacco. Along with furniture and textiles, the leaf sustained farmers, blue collar workers and families in this area of Virginia known as Southside.
All three industries are in decline now, and the region typically leads the state in unemployment. But something beneath the fields _ something you can't see _ could be Southside's salvation.
Uranium _ enough to power every nuclear power plant in the U.S. for 2 1/2 years _ lies under these fields where dozens of black-and-white Angus-Hereford beef cattle were grazing on a gray, drizzly winter day.
Geologist Patrick M. Wales walked the field's fence line with a Geiger counter to illustrate what hundreds of jobs sound like. He stooped to clear layers of wet leaves from a culvert, then cradled the detector in the middle of the trough he made. The instrument that had rhythmically clicked like a cicada seconds before now emitted a steady, piercing shriek.
The deposit runs deep, about 1,500 feet. "This is really one of the areas where it just happens to pop up to the surface," Wales said.
The ore detected by the Geiger counter is the tip of an iceberg that is the largest known uranium deposit in the United States and among the largest in the world.
Now a company's bid to mine the 119 million pounds of the radioactive ore has churned up the political landscape in Virginia. Virginia's General Assembly is taking up the fiercely debated issue this session and it's a coin flip whether it will clear the way for the state to become the first on the East Coast to mine uranium.
Most uranium mining in the U.S. has occurred in the arid West. Virginia is prone to tropical tempests _ some of historic proportions _ and opponents fear a catastrophic storm could create an environmental nightmare if the mining and processing of the ore was allowed. Drenching rains and winds could carry radioactive waste to local waters that are used for drinking supplies in the state's largest city, Virginia Beach, and others in southeastern Virginia, they argue.
"We're looking at an extraordinary high-stakes gamble and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take," said Cale Jaffe, a leading voice against mining and director of the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
It's not the mining that stirs the most concern, but the so-called milling _ the separation of the ore from hard rock.
As rock and uranium are mined, they are crushed and then leached through a chemical process to extract the ore. Besides yellowcake, the fuel for nuclear power plants, the process creates huge amounts of waste called tailings. The tailings must be stored for up to 1,000 years. Virginia Uranium, the company seeking the right to mine, has committed to storing the waste in below-ground containment cells that it says would minimize the risk of the radioactive waste being released to local wells or public drinking sources.
Opponents have not been appeased.
They include the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm lobby and traditionally pro-business; the NAACP; church groups; municipal organizations; water-protection groups; and every environmental organization of note in the state.
Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose district includes Pittsylvania County, says the creation of mining jobs got his interest but not his support.
It's the milling that worries Merricks, and it's a tough call as he ticks off the jobs and industries that have withered through the years. He's quick to add, however, that he's heard from people who have decided against locating in his district because of the fear of uranium mining.
For him, it comes down to this: "How do you define safe?"
"I know you cannot 100 percent guarantee anything to be safe, but I think you need to have some reasonable assurances that the process is not going to contaminate the environment," he said. "Personally, I made the decision that I don't think it's worth the risk for the milling."
The story of uranium in Virginia parallels the nation's uneasy history with nuclear power.
The uranium deposit in Pittsylvania County was first detected in the 1950s but interest in mining it didn't develop until nuclear power emerged as a source of clean energy in the 1970s. The accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, then the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine, changed that. As uranium prices plummeted, interest in tapping the Southside Virginia deposit waned and the Legislature enacted a moratorium on mining the ore in the 1980s. It remains in place to this day.